Friday, June 3, 2011

Rejected Little Boys: Some Thoughts About Odd Future.

[ A (Pseudo-)Topical Preamble: So, the Rapture happened. My guess is, if you're reading this, you weren't sucked into some kind of vortex, yeah? Well, neither was I. So, I guess we can stop hating gay people in the name of God now? Right? Don't we basically have empirical proof of his noncompliance with the verbatim dictums of the Bible—à la Jesus's lessons to the Pharisees in Matthew, when he explains that the most important thing to do is love your neighbor, not castigate him based on the banal edicts in Leviticus? Ah, well—food for thought. Now, on to our regularly scheduled programming. ]

Some months ago, as some of you may remember, I posted a couple of songs by the up & coming rap collective Odd Future (or, OFWGKTA)—one of which was the much-hyped video for "Yonkers" by the group's founder, Tyler, The Creator. As a piece of promotion for his recently released album, Goblin, the song worked wonders, popping up everywhere, garnering hits & views galore, primarily—& I stand by this—because it's kind of brilliant. As I said at the time, the video is "really, artfully disturbing, all the more so for its simplicity"—&, meanwhile, the song itself trips lyrically skilled, with lines like I slipped myself some pink Xannies & danced 'round the house in all overprint panties—which, at least to me, at the time, seemed a somewhat braver broaching of the "homo" line than most established rappers would dare.

& so, with toes dipped only so far into the Odd Future phenomenon, I shrugged off critics' alarmist reactions to, say, his invocations of V-Tech & Columbine; in general, when it comes to issues like this, I tend to agree with what Tyler opines on his eponymous track:

They claim the shit I say is just wrong /
Like nobody has those really dark thoughts when alone /
I'm just a teenager...

& it's true: he is, & they are, & in the end, this is—as he makes sure to point out in an awkwardly placed "Random Disclaimer"—fucking fiction, his form of self-expression. Indeed, as an avid analyzer of gorefest flicks, even an eager consumer of chainsaw-sharp wit, it would be massively hypocritical of me to deny anyone their violent fantasies, those artful exorcisms of dark demons that otherwise trapped might wreak some real havoc. As far as I was concerned, Tyler was in the clear, & "Yonkers" continued to rack up playcounts, including plenty from me.

However, the more of his material I heard—snagging all the old free downloads, really taking it all in—the more I found it increasingly, gratingly difficult to put up with Odd Future's essentially omnipresent woman-bashing. Take, for example, this verse from "She (feat. Frank Ocean)":

1, 2, you're the girl that I want /
3, 4, 5, 6, 7, shit /
8 is the bullets if you say no after all this /
I just couldn't take it, you're so motherfuckin' gorgeous /
Gorgeous, baby, you're gorgeous /
I just wanna drag your lifeless body to the forest /
& fornicate with it, but that's because I'm in love with you /

Threats of violence, pseudo-prostitutional coercion (re: "But I bought you dinner!"), "I only do it because I love you" vileitude, desire for a woman who's nothing but a body, date-rape/serial sex offender imagery, rounding it all off with a slur—I mean, it's almost impressive the gamut this relatively quick verse runs. Then, of course, come Tyler's bevy of especially fun lines, of which I'll provide only a small fraction, including some from pre-Goblin endeavors (which, for the record, I tend to like better):

God damn, I love bitches /
'specially when they only suck dick & wash dishes /
cooking, cleaning, grant my wishes /
& make me & the Wolf Gang sandwiches

Fuck Tyler, I'm'a change my name to Uncle Phil /
'Cause every girl I fuck, it's always against her Will

Now you gotta spat, spit it out until you scat /
Then you gotta sat & shit it out, bitch, fuck your feelings /
You wasn’t feeling shit when you was down there kneeling /
Now shut the fuck up you got another dick to deal with
(Boppin' Bitch)

Compliment her tits & then it's off to hump her /
Fuck her in a Hummer, well I rape her, then I put her in a slumber /
It's not a figure of speech when I tell you that I dumped her

Fuckin' in my white van /
beat her with a nice white nightstand /
until I give her gashes where it's nothing but the white meat
(Blacc Friday)

Game of duck-duck-duck tape with a dead goose /
She running around this motherfucking dungeon, her legs loose /
Until I accidentally get the saw to her head, oops /
Victim, victim, honey you're my fifth one /
Honey on that topping when I stuff you in my system
(Tron Cat)

Now, fans of the band will no doubt jump all over me for that last one, because, of course, "Tron Cat" is a character Tyler raps in—comparable to Eminem's "Slim Shady," for lack of a less obvious correlate—the "voice in my head, telling me to do all this fucked up shit ... this shit that I don't wanna fuckin' do," as Tyler explains to his interpolated, voice-distorted therapist, "Dr. TC," at the end of the preceding track. Moreover, the lyric is obviously hyperbolic in, say, its suggestion of cannibalism—just like the first excerpt, from "Transylvania," could be defended as a comic recall of sexist tropes, ironic in its blatancy.

Still, I would ask you, gently, to please just look at the unrelenting trend here. Why is it that Tyler can't seem to bend his witticisms around some less hateful topic than degradation & rape? Why is it that the bulk of his dark fantasies aren't just violent, they're violent against women—&, why is it that, if this is all only a cathartic fiction, this blatant sexism sloshes over into even his least fantastical lyrics?

That's all I'm asking—but I think it's taken me so long to get here in part because Odd Future is so masterful at instilling real fear of dissent in their following. With accusations that critics don't get it, 'cause it's not made for them, interspersed with literal invitations for fans to join the gang, as it were (e.g., Odd Future, Wolf Gang / We came together 'cause we didn't have nobody else / & you? You just might be one of us / Are you?), they've created the most effective kind of Emperor's New Clothes groupthink: anyone who doesn't like it doesn't get it, & if you don't get it, you don't belong—& you want to belong, don't you?

The thing is, though, my intent is not merely to hate. In fact, I'm doing everything I can to "get it," because ultimately, I think it's redundant (& nonetheless done to death) simply to castigate Tyler & his cohorts for their clear & present bad taste. The ickiness of this rapey aspect is already apparent to anyone with sensory capabilities, & more importantly, I think the problem runs deeper than "Odd Future is misogynistic" or even "rap music tends to be misogynistic." I think the problem transcends music altogether—& that this very fact is, indeed, the problem.

For one thing, to snag another few lines from "Tron Cat":

I'm not a rapper, nor a rapist, nor a racist /
I fuck bitches with no permission & tend to hate shit /
& brag about the actions in a rhyming pattern matter /
Then proceed to sat her down when I go splatter in her chatterbox

Tyler (or his other alter ego Wolf Haley, or Tron Cat, or whatever amalgamation thereof we're listening to right now) doesn't consider himself a rapist—&, for all I know, he's not—but, just to be clear, someone who fucks bitches with no permission can't not be. (In fact, that's the most clear-cut definition of a rapist.) There is a line, to be sure, between word & deed—but the line seems to be ever blurring, perhaps because of these ever present words, between acceptable rhetoric & acceptable behavior—what it's okay to rap about & what it's okay to do.

Meanwhile—& more to my main thrust—I've kept in the rest of the verse to highlight the fact that, simply put, he's fucking talented. Really: if I could turn off my English comprehension & just listen to these fast-colliding syllables, the experience would be nothing but welcome. Unfortunately, I can't, so I'll just have to stay disappointed that this is the way these quick-tongued kids have chosen to express themselves—that, rather than grasp always for honesty or complexity, they've let themselves fall into one of the oldest wound-licking tropes. Indeed, in our culture, this predatory demeaning seems to be the standard for any dude down on his lady luck—rhetoric that's both accessible to & acceptable for rejected little boys who feel entitled to women's bodies.

Think back for a moment, if you will, to The Social Network—why I still can't stop gushing over Sorkin's achievement—because it plays out accurately & expertly this phenomenon that media so rarely explore with enough depth: the real, emotional pain felt by romantically snubbed young gents, & how that so often translates into the worst kind of misogyny. For example, the very first scene, the set-up for this tale of near-Machivellian revenge, is a break-up—a sudden, soul-crushing, character-lacerating dumping, to be exact—& what does our derided hero do? He sits down at his computer & writes "Erica Albright's a bitch," then proceeds to craft "Facemash," a comparative version of "Hot or Not" that directly objectifies his female classmates (only slightly more humane than his initial idea of comparing the women to farm animals).

Though this lady-centric thread soon gets trammeled up in a general theme of rejection—of geeks previously outcast seizing power in the technological age—it is by no means forgotten, if only because the last few heart-wrenching moments show Mark still desperate to connect with his former flame—&, moreover, because it's littered throughout the original script. For example, when Eduardo is later trying to explain why Mark didn't actually regret this much-derided first "Face-" foray, an early draft reads (on page 43): "With Facemash, he'd beaten the Harvard computers, he'd beaten the Ad Board, & he made the girls mad. Facemash did what he wanted it to do." (The film features a similar line, with the female element excised.) In short, Sorkin clearly sees what's up: that, when confronted with rejection, it's easy for boys to take a sexist society's cues & lash out at the entire female gender—objectifying these worthless sluts & whores, making them less-than—if only to avoid admitting that, maybe, there's something about themselves that was, in this case, unlikeable—to make theirs a categorical turn-down by that bitch Womankind, nothing that could possibly be their own fault.

&—to pop back from our tangent—this is exactly what I see going on with Odd Future, as evidenced on Goblin by the solo stand-out "Her":

See, this is probably my second favorite song on the album—or, well, one of the few that doesn't make me cringe every few verses—because it's so clearly, painfully honest, even relatable:

She's so pretty, fuck self pity, I feel so shitty /
I wanna text her in a jealous rage /
But if she reply to say anything, I'm'a smile I know

I mean, really: we've all been there—second best once again, watching the romance we wanted through glass—enough to know it's a place no one wants to be. For another concrete example, the second song I posted in February—"Luper," by Tyler's missing bandmate, Earl Sweatshirt—tells a similar story: Earl's just been dumped, so he wallows in wonderfully alliterative metaphor—because when she left, it didn't break my heart, it broke my torso—but, when he sees her with another guy, things turn suddenly ugly:

The basement light is darkened & the switchblade is sharpened /
Her name on my arm & her face on a two percent carton /
See her face while you're fixing your breakfast /
& know she's in my basement, objecting to sex with /
me, murder spree, surges on with the next bitch /
Tombstones read RIP 'cause it's pieces they rest in.

There's no denying that rejection, put plainly, sucks. Nobody wants to feel unwanted, & seeking some relief from that kind of pain is more than understandable—is even, according to German theorist Ludwig Feuerbach, the origin of the religious impulse: that we absolve ourselves of any guilt at not measuring up by abstracting our best qualities (e.g., omnibenevolence) to God & thereby claiming them fundamentally, categorically unattainable. If we couldn't have them in the first place, then it's not our fault for failing—a statement that soothes both mortality & unrequited love.

However, in this sex-centric case, the problem rears its head when these boys, from Zuckerberg to Sweatshirt, use the cheap anesthetic our culture hands them: loudly claiming that the women who reject them, & through them women in general, are bitches & sluts whom they'd prefer to look at or fuck (or even rape) than acknowledge as people with brains & faculties & decision-making capabilities that could possibly have turned them down.(This is, I would assert, precisely why OFWGKTA are so openly disdainful of—or, really, threatened by—lesbianism, "dykes"—women who by definition have no interest in them.) Thus, this kind of extreme linguistic degradation also represents a form of fantastical catharsis, to be sure—one which Odd Future has gleefully enmeshed with violence—but one that I find far more problematic than its merely gory counterparts, because it takes place at the expense of an entire gender's self-worth—because the phenomenon it exemplifies really isn't so fantastical after all.

Take, for example, the very issue of access to this vengeful lyric idiom. If a woman were to go to similar heights—viciously, categorically lashing out at the male gender—she'd be labeled one of those feminists: the frigid, persnickety, uptight wet blankets whose misandrist overanalyses drain the fun out of everything, especially pop culture—who dare to think of themselves like people, not sex furniture, & who are thus adequately punished. By my count, it's the most-used line in every young lady's arsenal—the one that never fails to sound like nails on a chalkboard as covered by the Black Eyed Peas, even to my jaded ears: "Sure, I'm a feminist, but I'm not, like, a feminist," or some variant thereof—anything to dilute the image of a bra-burning, hairy-legged ball-buster. Even the Lady herself, if you'll recall, took pains to remind us that she's "not a feminist. I love men. I hail men"—savvily greasing the skids of her own success, because, in the eyes of our culture, that's the worst thing a woman can be: a man-hater. Meanwhile, as we speak, Tyler, the Creator, who could easily be described as a woman-hater—or, who, at the very least, has made a name for himself through the loud & repeated practice, however "fictitious," of woman-hating—is rocketing to the top of the charts.

My point is not to encourage a bevy of tracks about once-rejected women slaughtering captive male sex slaves in their dungeons (though, you know, one or two might be fun). My point absolutely is, however, to point out this clear discrepancy in how it's acceptable for men & women to express themselves—to underscore why it is I scoff at anyone still wielding the term "post-feminist," & to recognize how, on some level, this implicit gag order on female artists—&, really, females in general—is liable to leave everyday ladies floundering in surplus hurt, unable to tap into this wave of abstracting anger when facing their own instances of rejection.

Even so, I still assert that the solution isn't to level the playing field, but to do what we can to shut it down altogether: as I've tried to make clear but can only make clearer, I think there's quite literally nothing to be gained from including in the doctrine of Female Liberation the necessity to objectify & demean men in some twisted power reversal—if only because, well, we clearly don't like it very much, so why impose that experience on anyone else? People should stop being crappy to people—because, as far as I've seen, all these cross-gender revenge attempts & ironic sexist recalls only continue to churn the gears of a fundamentally broken system, in which even todays "exciting, new" musical acts seem helplessly, perhaps happily trapped.

So, sure, I'll still listen to the odd Odd Future track—because, for example, it can be gut-wrenchingly fun for everyone involved to shout "kill people, burn shit, fuck school," to thrash out aggression with expressly harsh syllables—but I'll probably be straying away from the majority that propose to lock people with my similar chromosomal pattern in a basement. Because ultimately, hearing lyrics like that can be not only unpleasant, but honestly, palpably frightening—because, sure, it's a fantasy, it's fucking fiction, but that doesn't make the sexism therein any less real, or any less pernicious. Though Tyler will probably never really be afforded the chance to stab Bruno Mars in his goddamn esophagus, he's prone (& even apt) to degrade his female concertgoers—&, moreover, honestly, even if these particular people won't actually perform the particular acts they tout, they undoubtedly feel they've been given the right to tout them. As evidenced by OFWGKTA & Co., these stomach-churning rape jokes represent acceptable, even praiseworthy paradigms in which to express male hurt & aggression—their violence-laced indignation just the chicken to our culture's seemingly unbreakable misogynistic egg.

& this is what freaks me out most about Odd Future: that their music—both in & of itself, & in terms of its widely laudatory reception—is emblematic of the fact that, whatever feminism has accomplished, it may have, in short, removed the cause, but not the symptom. Men still feel entitled to tower aggressively over women—both within their savage rhetoric & in their very access to it—&, as these upstart youngsters help prove, the next generation only seems to be sinking us further into the regressive mire.

So, though I recognize that these gents are talented—quick-witted, alliterative, riding plenty of other cutting edges—I just can't get past the blind, tired pandering it takes to perpetuate this hateful lyric trope, all its retro backsliding & ultimately cheap catharsis. For all that Odd Future are shaking things up, they seem to have forgotten that this kind of woman-hating is the oldest, meanest trick in the book, hardly worthy of their youth & creativity. Ultimately, to crib a bit from Tyler's wordsmithery: fuck the fat lady, it's over when all the kids sing about something that's actually radical—not just reactionary sexism dressed up like it's something to be gawked at.

Today's Headphone Fodder:


Sometimes, you just really need to listen to this song. On repeat. For days.

This is one of those times.

1 comment:

  1. i love you. i wrote a long response. we had a power failure. it got eaten. i was stupid not to have backed it up. now i'm frustrated & tired. my main points were:

    (a) i LOVE your very smart, interesting, & laudably empathetic exploration around the regions of this truly utterly insane sociopathic misogyny

    (b) you might consider talking a bit about money & business here (since tyler is an employee of a corporation that makes money off of his misogyny), &

    (c) is it possible that tyler is playing a mocking, ironic role somewhat analogous to stephen colbert's—or, better, much more analogous to a WWF wrestler's, that is, the role of a person whom no fan expects actually to live life day to day as the flamboyantly violent, cartoonish asshole he appears to be in the ring, but whom the fan nonetheless hopes to pay to see performing as that asshole? & what's that all about? seriously?

    & isn't LaGaGa just the female version of this? in a clever reductio, you imagine her expressing exactly parallel views to Tyler's & being regarded therefore (paradoxically) as a castrating feminist (rather than admired, as he is supposed to be). she does, however, express what might be called complementary views to Tyler's. personally, i'd say that she's very much the exaggerated stereotype Tyler is, only on the culturally feminine side. she's the WWF wrestling stereotype of the over-the-top female sexpot musical celebrity. so instead of bragging about torturing & killing bitches, like Tyler, she's bragging about sleeping with lots of guys, and a few women too (extra points!), & no way being an old-fashioned girly girl about it. Tyler gets paid in spades to adopt the WWF-like stereotype of masculine musical performers, & gaga, the feminine.

    the question i have is whether big corporations are pulling the cart by encouraging with carrots & cash these truly outlandish, inhuman monsters of stereotypical gendered behavior? or are the corporations contentedly responding to the whipping & the shouting of the people who wildly & eagerly make these monsters trot?

    keep writing, sweetie! wildebeesties, everywhere!